CAALL 2016: Scaling Digital Black Feminisms–A Critical Discussion about the Digital Labor of Representation

Call:  I recently participated in a discussion at the Celebrating African-American Languages and Literature Conference (Theme:  Race and Resistance) , and served as a panelist for the Cooper-DuBois Mentoring Program

Note:  The Cooper-DuBois program is a new initiative designed to support underrepresented students interested in pursuing graduate studies in Black Studies, Cultural Studies, Rhetoric and Composition, and other similar interdisciplinary fields.

Response:  This conference was a great learning experience that enabled me to network with amazing people doing excellent creative work.  First, I am grateful to Dr. Shirley Moody-Turner for generously inviting me to share my experiences with emerging young scholars, and to chair and co-lead a discussion about race, gender, and digital matters.  Among its highlights were the fact that I finally got to engage in a cross-sector collaboration with my cosmic sister Nadia Delane.  In addition to the fact that CAALL commissioned her artwork for the conference for the second time, Nadia was able to showcase her recent hand-crafted book Coif City.  This exciting mixed media, multi-genre work visually depicts numerous interviews–that Delane conducted in Crown Heights with women representing diverse backgrounds–as poetry.  This work models visual journalism, creative writing, graphic art, and printmaking in ways that open new possibilities for narrating women’s personal and cultural histories through dynamic integrations of print and digital media.  It was enthusiastically received, and I can’t wait to see how the Coif City project evolves!

Moreover, I got to meet some impressive undergraduate students whose commitment to learning more about black writing traditions and cultural practices sparked conversations about how they imagine the academy doing this work in the next ten years.  Our discussions convinced me that they were grad students or even young professors!  The Cooper-DuBois program will truly be an asset to these students’ pursuit of academic jobs.  I also had the privilege of speaking to current graduate students about their current research and am excited to see so much integration of race, technology, and rhetoric in their frameworks and methods.  Meeting Professors Evie Shockley and Carmen Kynard in person was a treat, as well.  I’ve read so much of their work over the years, as both Renegade Poetics and Vernacular Insurrections have been instrumental to my creative pedagogy and sense of connection to other black women scholars.

As I previously mentioned, facilitating a discussion with Nadia Delane, a multimedia visual storyteller living and working in Brooklyn, NY.  We attended Penn State University together for English graduate studies and embarked on different paths post-graduation.  As an MA to PhD student, Nadia decided to complete her M.A. in English before pursuing (and successfully completing) her M.F.A. at SVA in NY.  I finished the PhD and pursued (and successfully obtained) a tenure-track Assistant Professor job.  After years of aesthetic and intellectual collaboration, we have supported each others passions with the kind of raw emotional honesty that tends to be absent in “professional” spaces.  Although we work with different materials and audiences, as writers and artists and philosophers, we are constantly pushing against the kinds of identity constraints that inhibit our work from manifesting.  We feel that it shouldn’t be a radical act to create, especially as two women whom deeply respect each other’s health and happiness, but we have both experienced intellectual isolation and emotional exhaustion variously in spaces we have attempted to nurture and innovate!

From this shared experience, Nadia and I were able to invite others into a conversation we have had for a long time:  In what ways do black women labor with language and work with words and images to resist negative representations of their identity?  Who does this work?  How do black women who identify as “black feminists,” or “womanists” also face the problem of “meta-labor,” or “rhetorical work,” in which they not only have to represent their value to mainstream outsiders, but they must also represent their value to other women doing similar work.  In an effort to recognize that many black feminists operate in digital spaces that communicate to “non-academic” audiences, we also focused on how the incorporation of black feminism into closed system scholarly publication systems causes major tension between women who are laboring over representation online without pay vs. those who are creating alternative representations as underrepresented bodies in spaces that tend to absorb, but not reward, the intellectual contributions of those working outside of institutional places.

Our discussion included several lively speakers whose ideas we are organizing on this document.  We will be updating this document over the next couple of weeks to accurately document the discussion as a happening.

Meanwhile, feel free to check out our abstract and biographies, as follows.

Scaling Black Feminisms:  A Critical Discussion about the Digital Labor of Representation

Black feminists’ resistance to the objectification of black women is complex, difficult work.  Over the past few centuries, black feminists have poured substantial amounts of energy into the invention, production, and circulation of persuasive messages that could resist and transform centuries of negative representations of black people (Tubman, Watkins-Harper, Stewart, Cooper, Brown, Hurston, Simone, Bambara, Lourde, Morrison, Walker, Royster, Collins, hooks, Gumbs, Rose, and (so many more)).  This rhetorical work, which is inclusive of physical and mental labor, involves the use of every kind of emerging media technology–from the phonograph, and the radio to the television and the Internet.  Since resistance is a creative effort that requires intellectual work, what kind of labor is necessary for producing and managing black feminists’ (radical) identity online, and how does this labor intensify the scope and scale of black feminist scholarship?   

This roundtable examines how the technological politics of the Internet and social media affects black feminists’ representation and the labor of resistance.  As a global, networked information infrastructure, the Internet facilitates collective intelligence by expanding the number of domains in which any subject can be discovered/produced (Levy).  The Internet, then, scales the multiple ways any of its users might be brought into contact with the ideas, concepts, identities, and communities of black feminism.  Therefore, it radically affects the kind of work that black feminism can (and should) do, and who can (and should) do that work.  Furthermore, Black feminists working online are doing digital work, or knowledge work, when they self-consciously construct a particular identity and produce an archive of thought that documents the intelligence of black feminism.  In other words, how does digital black feminism contribute to the intellectual history of black women and/or disrupt what even counts as ‘black feminist scholarship?’  Finally, how do labor demands of representing black feminism affect the relationship between black feminists mostly operating in academic spaces and those inhabiting non-academic spaces?

The roundtable leaders will draw on these questions to frame the purposes of discussion, which are two-fold.   First, the roundtable will encourage participants to explore the scope of ‘black feminism,’ and especially ‘black feminist scholarship’ online–in terms of how these concepts are circulated and decoded as ‘recognizable’ to other Internet users.  Next, facilitators will encourage participants to connect this discussion to some of the specific ways in which ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’ black feminists ought to be negotiating the roles and responsibilities of digital black feminism/work.  The goal of this roundtable discussion will be to enable its participants and attendees to identify and analyze some of the various ways in which black feminist discourse appears online, and to connect this expression to the politics of the Internet and its digital economy.  

Note:  The facilitators will attempt to make their subject more accessible to participants by designing a bibliography that will enable attendees to navigate some of the mainstream online spaces that involve ‘womanism’ or ‘black feminism.’  During the discussion, we will be taking notes and live-tweeting the event in ways help our participants visualize the nuanced matrices of black feminism as it may (eventually) appear through its various “tags”  (e.g. hashtags, usernames, keyword search terms, etc.) in popular databases like Google, social media websites like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, microblogs such as Tumblr and Instagram, as well as Wikipedia.  

Roundtable Leaders’ Biographies

Nadia Delane, M.A., M.F.A

Nadia DeLane is an artist, author and New Jersey native living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. A graduate of the School of Visual Arts’ MFA Visual Narrative Program, DeLane’s work spans multimedia film, narrative painting, and fiction. Prior to her tenure at SVA, DeLane obtained an MA in Literature from Penn State University where she concentrated on womanist texts such as Zami by Audre Lorde and Fran Ross’s Oreo. DeLane has produced written content for The School of Visual Art’s News and Events blog, SVA Close Up, the SVA Visual Arts Journal, and WholeFoods Magazine. DeLane has reviewed several art exhibits and installations and served as a columnist for health and wellness organizations, The Friend’s Health Connection and Mindful Health. DeLane’s visual art has exhibited in Chicago, IL, New York, NY, and can be found on permanent display in Penn State University’s Africana Research Center and the Heart and Kidney Transplant Center at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey.

Alexandria Lockett, Ph.D.

Alexandria Lockett, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of English at Spelman College.  Her areas of applied expertise include: technical/professional writing, teaching with technology, and writing program administration, which intersect with her research interests in digital history, new media, surveillance, social movements, discourse theory, transdisciplinary communication, and cultural rhetoric.  In the capacities of tutor, mentor, editor, career assistant, administrator, and instructor, she’s worked with diverse groups of college writers representing all classification levels including:  multilingual (ESL), first-generation, and students from underrepresented ethnic/racial/economic/able-bodied backgrounds at the University of Oklahoma and the Pennsylvania State University.  


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